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The sports tech company looking to 'unlock the truth behind the game' of rugby

Sportable’s smart ball was used recently in the Varsity Cup in South Africa.

THE RECENT SEMI-finals and final of the Varsity Cup in South Africa were host to an interesting trial that might have given supporters, players, coaches, and broadcasters a taste of something we will see much more of in rugby in the future.

The Varsity Cup is a very innovative tournament that is constantly experimenting with new laws and this year’s play-offs saw the ‘Gilbert x Sportable Smart Ball’ in action.

Sports tech company Sportable have been working with the rugby ball manufacturer for the last four years on this clever bit of kit – essentially a rugby ball with a tiny chip in it providing information on the speed of the ball, its spin rate, the distance it travels, and its hang time.

It meant fans watching the Varsity Cup on TV were getting immediate information on kicks, passes, and lineout throws, while data released on social media via graphics like the one below also provided new insights.

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This project was an important step for Sportable, whose technology has the scope to provide a much broader range of data around player tracking on the pitch, as well as the impact of collisions, and even in aiding refereeing decisions around forward passes.

Dugald Macdonald is one of the founders of the company and says their aim is to “unlock the truth behind the game.” 

Macdonald comes from strong rugby stock, his father having played for the Springboks against the 1974 Lions and his two uncles having represented Scotland. 

He was working in corporate financing in the mining industry until his friend Pete Husemeyer gave him a call about the idea that sparked Sportable. 

A nuclear engineer, Husemeyer was working with NASA at the time and found himself watching ice hockey in the US, wondering just how much force was involved in the big collisions out on the rink. He and his friends went about trying to figure it out.

As Husemeyer discussed the project with Macdonald, the conversation came around to rugby.

“Why is there no information on scrums and tackles? They’re such an important part of the game,” wondered Macdonald, whose subsequent research found that there was a thirst for data at every level of the rugby chain – fans, broadcasters, players, teams.

They got to work and Sportable is now five years old and working with teams like Eddie Jones’ England, Leicester Tigers, and Saracens. Macdonald says the company is “at an advanced stage” of reaching agreements with some of the biggest rugby competitions in the game, while they’re already working on a three-year project with Six Nations Rugby.

Last year, Jones name-checked Sportable for their help in improving his players’ off-the-ball work thanks to their tracking data.

5ec637d742de905fa3d454b3_Our_tech_transparent_may Sportable's kit includes the smart ball, a player tracking device, and the impact vest.

The smart ball is central to Sportable – Macdonald calls it the “conductor of the orchestra” – and they will soon follow the partnership with Gilbert up with something similar with rugby league’s Steeden and Wilson, who make American footballs.

Sportable also have a device worn by players that is similar to existing GPS devices, but Macdonald says it’s more accurate and, crucially, it works in conjunction with the ball. The software always knows where the ball is, who has it, what kind of kick they’ve just done, or where and who they’ve passed to, how players are moving around the pitch during games on and off the ball. This is the kind of stuff professional performance analysts and coaches like Jones can’t get enough of. 

Finally, an impact vest measures the force involved in tackles and scrums, something that excites Macdonald. He believes fans would delight in being able to see instant data about those things on their screens or in-stadium as they watch games live.

“We can see the pressure involved on the player in the middle of the scrum, where it’s like having two Range Rovers slowly pushing into you,” says Macdonald.

“In those terms, you can start to marvel at the athleticism of the players rather than just decry a very complex part of the game.”

The devices on the pitch link to beacons placed around the field, which then transmit the data to coaches, broadcasters and fans. Macdonald says these beacons can be set up in 10 minutes in any stadium in the world, while his aim is that they will be affordable enough for schools and university teams to get in on the action.

Building an “index of skill” for passing and kicking- as well as the impact data – is another ambition for the future. 

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“How great would be if someone could compare their passing speed with the best scrum-half in the world or the hang time of their kicks with the best in the world?” says Macdonald.

Smart-ball-image

“That gamification side of it could be truly remarkable. This is the kind of stuff that can change how people interact with the game but at the same time, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It’s about getting it into the hands of the best teams in the world first.”

Sportable recently agreed a partnership with Australia’s rugby league competition, the NRL, to run a behind-the-scenes trial of their forward pass technology, something that could have a great impact on rugby union too.

Ball and player tracking means Sportable’s software can give a very accurate and live reading on whether the ball was passed forward out of the hands. The trial will initially just involve them comparing their software’s analysis to actual in-game refereeing decisions but eventually it could see referees’ getting a buzz on their watch or a beep in their ear when a forward pass is thrown.

The smart ball could also eventually mean assistant referees could give precision-accurate marks of where the ball went into touch after kicks.

Sportable will continue to work with the Varsity Cup in the coming years as well as with the club teams and national sides like England that they have already partnered with to provide more performance analysis data.

Whether more leagues and competitions get on board to provide information-hungry fans with what they’re looking for remains to be seen.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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